After the Injury: NJ District Court Reiterates Indefinite Light Duty & Unpaid Leave is Not a Reasonable Accommodation
August 14, 2023 | By: Yostina Mishriky, Esq.
On July 12, 2023, in Wraith v. Wayfair, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granted summary judgment in favor of an employer, dismissing a former employee’s claim of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate in violation of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Law (PSLL) following an on-the-job injury. The District Court found that the employer did not have a duty to accommodate an indefinite light duty or indefinite leave under the law where the only information provided was a physician note indicating the employee could not return to work.
Gilbert Wraith began his employment with one of Wayfair’s warehouse facilities located in Cranbury, New Jersey as a Warehouse Associate on October 1, 2019. Part of his job duties, which he reviewed and acknowledged, was to "be comfortable repeatedly lifting up to 75 pounds unassisted and maneuvering product 150+ pounds…" and "be able to work on warehouse floor 8 hours a day or more.” After a few months of working at the warehouse, Wraith suffered an injury to his rotator cuff. Following his workplace injury, Wraith was examined by a physician who instructed him not to work. Subsequent doctor visits confirmed his serious injury and he thereafter underwent medical treatment. Wraith was ineligible for Family and Medical Leave and exhausted all his paid and unpaid time off (including his NJ Paid Sick Leave).
In February 2020, Wayfair terminated Wraith’s employment and informed him that he was eligible for re-hire when he was able to return. In May 2020, after he was cleared to return to full activities, Wraith never contacted Wayfair to inquire about obtaining his old job.
Wraith thereafter filed a lawsuit alleging unlawful termination and argued there were other light duty positions available at Wayfair that did not require heavy lifting. The case was thereafter removed to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. After discovery, Wayfair moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the Complaint.
The District Court’s Decision
The District Court found that while Wraith’s injury rendered him disabled within the meaning of the NJLAD, he was not otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Moreover, the Court found that even if Wraith was placed on indefinite light duty, it was evident he was not qualified to complete the required tasks of his job as enumerated in his job description, even with the accommodation of indefinite light duty. In addition, Wraith’s doctor’s notes advised he could not return to work and provided no date on which he was expected to return. Thus, the Court held that given Wraith’s inability to set forth a timeline for his recovery, indefinite unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the law.
The District Court also found Wraith could not demonstrate that he was terminated in retaliation for filing a claim under the WCA. The Court found there was no evidence that Wraith was ever denied any paid sick leave or that he was terminated because he took this time off from work in violation of the PSLL.
This serves as an important reminder that employers must be prudent and deliberate when engaging in the interactive process with employees. Employers must document any and all discussions with and accommodations offered and made for employees requesting accommodations in the workplace. Moreover, the District Court reiterated that indefinite unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the law and employers are not required to eliminate an employee’s essential job functions if an employee is not otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of their job, with or without accommodation.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices for managing accommodations and leaves of absence in accordance with local, state and federal employment laws, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq. via email here or Brigette N. Eagan, Esq. via email here in the firm’s Human Resources Counseling & Compliance Practice Group, or call 973.533.0777.
Tags: Genova Burns LLC • Yostina Mishriky • Employment Law & Litigation • Dina M. Mastellone • Human Resources Counseling & Compliance • Brigette N. Eagan • NJLAD • Paid Sick Leave • Leaves of Absence • Accomodation